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Viktoria Walter

East meets West: Understanding Culture through Laughter

When I was on my exchange in Saint Petersburg some of my fellow German students gave our Russian teacher flowers as a present. It seems like a really nice thing do, unfortunately they forgot a very important detail in Russian culture: Never give someone a bouquet with an even amount of flowers as a present. As such a bouquet is connected with funerals and death in general. She almost started to cry, but was able to pull herself together, appreciate the gesture and laugh about the misunderstanding. Those everyday misunderstandings are the ones which Wladimir Kaminer, a Russian native living in Germany, is talking about in his books.

Humor and intercultural communication seem to be somehow intertwined. So how can this relation be used to aid intercultural communication? Are certain aspects of culture translatable?

One of the most important authors in Germany who combines those two aspects in a way that is easy to comprehend for German readers as well as for those with a Russian migration background is Wladimir Kaminer. Due to him having lived in both countries he is able to translate the unique character of one culture to the other.

Collecting Stories. A Russian in Berlin

Wladimir Kaminer, Author: Marco Fieber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, source: flickr.com

Wladimir Kaminer, Author: Marco Fieber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, source: flickr.com

German journalists struggle describing him: German author with Russian background, Russian author in Germany, Multikulti and further more. What is that, that he is doing and why is it important for the Russo-German relationship? Kaminer doesn’t understand himself as an artist, more as some kind of scientist who is gathering stories the same way people go into the forest to collect mushrooms as he explains in interviews with Sarah Kuttner and Spiegel. So, one could say he is a storyteller? That would be too easy – somehow it is more complex than that.

So what is he doing exactly? He writes short stories depicting the awkward situations people encounter when two different cultures meet and misunderstandings end in weird situations: “Some nights Russian and German journalists would meet at the bar; then they would try to build a journalistic connection through the exchange of toasts. Na sdorowje, said the German colleges. I didn’t even sneeze would the Russians say, insulted as it was a Polish toast, although they themselves were competely wrong with Hitler kaputt.” – a situation Kaminer describes in his book Karaoke.

His career in the German culture started out when he moved to Germany in 1990 as a Russian migrant with Jewish background. Kaminer describes in one of his books that when he and his friend Misha arrived in Germany they were surprised by the enthusiastic way they were welcomed – later they found out that the Germans being so joyful was due to the fact that Germany had won the soccer world championship that day and everyone was going crazy. His father advised him to go as the tickets for the journey weren’t too expensive – the ticket was approximately 96 Rubel and one didn’t need a visa for East Germany.

Capturing the Weird

His first days, years and impressions are summarized in his popular book “Russian Disco” which was published in 2000 and made into a movie some years later in 2012 with the same title, portraying Kaminer’s experience in Germany as a Russian migrant.

Kaffee Burger, Author: mompl, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, source: flickr.com

Kaffee Burger, Author: mompl, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, source: flickr.com

When he moved to Germany he and his friend soon organized parties naming them Russian Disco. By doing that Russian music and culture was brought to the people of Berlin. Those parties still take place in Kaffee Burger Club and they even tour through Germany. Kaminer and Yuriy Gurzhy even release compilations with music that is usually played at these parties.

Through that and his bestseller books he soon was the favorite Russian in Germany. Kaminer explains the Russian soul, Socialism and the Eastern bloc in a way that is rich in anecdotes and comprehensive for all his readers. The reason why Russian Germans and Germans alike love him and his comic way of portraying is the following: as soon as two cultures are in contact with each other there are always misunderstandings. However, with him being a Russian who moved to Germany and now has lived there for over 20 years he is able to depict the small little things Germans do that leave the Russians in awe as well as the other way round.

One thing he is mocking in one of his books are the allotment gardens that Germans just love because they fulfil their need for order and neatness. Through observing people around him and their behaviour as if he saw certain behaviour for the first time, he is able to portray those in a different light, giving them a comic context.

The same works for weird Russian behavior. In his book “Russian Disco” he tells the story of a Russian radio doctor thus pointing out how stubborn and superstitious Russians can be: As Russians having moved to Germany don’t trust German doctors they obviously look for someone who has a Russian background in the best case to understand their unbearable suffering or at least speaks Russian. In Berlin there was a Russian radio doctor in the 90s, who moved from Ukraine, where he formerly worked at a hospital, to Germany. He just seemed to know how to treat his listeners and gave them advice they wanted to hear: your skin isn’t clear? Keep your hands of Clearasil, just take gasoline. You’re lovesick or you have a cold? Two shots of Vodka with pepper and honey should do the trick. Everyone who grew up in Germany and has a Russian family can completely relate to this kind of medication and especially laugh about that.

Laughing for Connection

Wladimir Kaminer, Author: Marco Fieber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, source: flickr.com

Wladimir Kaminer, Author: Marco Fieber, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, source: flickr.com

Kaminer somehow holds the mirror in front of people’s weirdest behavior making them laugh at themselves. That’s how he helps the two cultures to connect with each other: describing certain situations, explaining the behaviour with funny anecdotes and thus creating understanding for the other side. Kaminer’s very own definition of humor is simple: Good humor must be dangerous, always on the verge. I situate good humor somewhere between brain disruption and manslaughter”.

And although understanding among nations and cultural exchange aren’t his main goals, he still wants to make sure that people get to know the Russian culture through him and not through some Russian mafia boss. Especially since the knowledge of the West about the so-called former Eastern bloc is still flawed.

But it’s not only that. Being the sympathetic man he is and talking with the harsh Russian accent the German media is benevolent of him. Therefore, it is no surprise that he’s not only writing tons of books in German but also shooting documentaries to for example show the provincial life in Germany or life in North Caucasus.

The behavior he describes in his books or documentaries that German people might count as weird when they meet Russians in Germany or visit Russia are for example the exhausting registration policy, the extended family (especially Caucasian families are huge!), the pharmacies that sell roots that work as a talisman, the unbroken belief in fate and the stubbornness in believing that your family planning should be finished by the mid of your twenties – any later would make you a disgrace to your family!

Kaminer says that the culture of a country is the reflection of the people living in it. By putting those things into a comic context he is putting the world upside down, putting a mirror in front of the people, making them question their own behaviour while being able to laugh at their own way of being.

Wladimir Kaminer is able to see things from both cultures from a distance and points out small things that might be considered unusual. That is how he is helping people to understand, accept and maybe start to love each other’s culture.

And thanks to Kaminer fellow German students won’t give bouquets with an even amount of flowers as a gift to their Russian teachers!

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Summary

In the near future, we’d like to explore some pan-European but also local transformative initiatives in more detail. We will examine the movements’ models for societal alternatives, as well as their methods for achieving them. Our goal is to identify and share sources of inspiration for regional and global change.

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Russian Dolls, Author: kilgarron, CC BY 2.0, source: flickr.com
Viktoria Walter

Holds a degree in slavonic studies and musicology. She is currently studying her masters in Integrated Media. During her studies she focused on literature, society and media. Being born in Russia and having grown up in Germany intercultural communication is a main interest

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